The interview was conducted by Gaele Sobott on 28th September 2015 at the Barbican Centre in London just before Colin attended the Creative Future Literary Awards at the Free Word Centre in Holborn.
Gaele Sobott: In Australia the visual arts and now dance appear to be surging ahead in terms of developing platforms and exposure for disabled artists. Literature is quite a way behind. In the UK disabled writers and literature seem to be better placed. What are the Creative Future Literature Awards and how is Disability Arts Online involved?
Colin Hambrook: Creative Future is a Brighton-based organisation looking to promote careers of ‘marginalised’ writers and artists. Amongst those they support with their annual Literary Award are a certain number of disabled writers. Disability Arts Online is a partner. We have signed up to help them promote the program, get information out, reach people. In terms of literature in the UK, Survivors’ literature has led the way.
GS: Please explain what Survivors’ Literature is.
CH: The key organisation is called Survivors’ Poetry, founded in 1990 by four poets with direct experience of the mental health system in the UK. In a really short space of time it mushroomed into a huge phenomenon. It was a UK network of groups that all became affiliated, some of them became registered charities or not-for-profit companies in their own right and I would say between ’94 to ‘96 it exploded and was reported on in the media and really picked up on. It was important that the people who ran the organisation and wrote for Survivors’ poetry come from a mental health background. They had experienced mental distress, been through or had an intimate knowledge of the mental health system.
GS: What kind of work were they producing?
CH: In the 90s there was a kind of performance poetry format, going into day centres, resource centres, organisations working with people who had come through the mental health system, and producing workshops and giving people the opportunity to perform. So typically the first half of an event would be open mic encouraging people to get up and perform their writing and the second half would be more experienced performance poets. The organisation still exists with a core force of people in London but it has become less prominent elsewhere in the UK over the last ten years.
GS: Why do you think that has happened?
CH: Survivors’ Poetry’s strength was in its Community Arts ethos, but it has become harder to find funding for grassroots work. It’s hard to keep integrity, supporting individual artists creativity at a grassroots level whilst maintaining support for ‘professional’ artists. Survivors’ Poetry turned to producing a literary output, which has been fairly successful. As part of the Unlimited showcase at London’s Southbank Centre last year, Disability Arts Online and Survivors’ Poetry celebrated the achievement of the organisation with a reading by some of the Survivors’ founding poets in the Saison Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall. The library contains twenty-seven titles under the Survivors’ Press imprint.
GS: Has Disability Arts Online managed to keep its integrity?
CH: Disability Arts Online in the last ten or twelve years has kind of managed. It’s a bit like a dance, you want to keep your core constituency on board and to nurture that talent, but also you’ve got to watch out, keep an eye on the priorities linked to where financial support can be found to ensure funders’ demands are satisfied.
For instance we have a modest contract with Unlimited to report on all of the artists and all of the projects that come out of Unlimited. It’s a fantastic opportunity to spread the word about this important initiative. Much of Unlimited’s aims and values concur with those of Disability Arts Online, working to support the development of art by disabled artists within the UK cultural sector. Disability Art Online’s brief is to interview the artists, review the shows, comment on the work as it progresses, and where possible, to commission copy for other online magazines and press in order to facilitate the reach of Unlimited to new audiences. Unlimited had a fairly substantial presence at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, with several pieces of work in the British Council Edinburgh Showcase. Unlimited is spearheaded by two organisations: Shape and ArtsAdmin and they’ve received support from the British Council in facilitating the artists taking their work outside the UK. In many ways it is a bright, shiny success story.
We have to work hard to ensure our integrity isn’t compromised, which means creating projects that support and create opportunities for our core constituency and looking to remain disabled-led as much as possible, whilst also working with the high-profile initiatives. Without the support of Unlimited many of the artists we work with would never have got the profile they’ve achieved. For example Jess Thom was unknown as a performer before her company Touretteshero received an Unlimited research and development commission for Backstage in Biscuitland. After a year or so of touring she has been commissioned by Channel 4 with a version of the show made for television, Broadcast in Biscuitland.
GS: So does your core constituency consist of disabled artists at grassroots level?
CH: Yes, disabled artists, writers, who are what the Arts Council term as emerging artists. They are people who create because they’ve got to create, not because they’re making a living out of being artists, necessarily.
GS: Is it possible some of these artists could find themselves forever classified as emerging because of the nature of the market and the value system used to categorise their art?
CH: Yes but that’s just the label that the Arts Council puts on it. People are creative because they need to be creative and creativity isn’t a commodity. We have this schism in our society that divides creativity up into commodity and art. It’s nonsense really.
GS: You mentioned that much of the art by disabled performers at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival focused on the body. Can you please talk more about that?
CH: Yes that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Culturally it’s very different from disability arts of possibly ten, certainly fifteen years ago where the focus on impairment was frowned on.
GS: Was that in defence of the Social Model of Disability?
CH: Defending the Social Model but also it was much more then about community and about people raging against the machine, standing up against discrimination, being a collective force. What’s happened is that as the focus for disability arts has moved away and broken up into impairment-focused issues, which I think are important . . .
GS: Why do you think these issues are important?
CH: Because the key problem with what I would call the first wave of disability arts from the mid 80s to the end of the 90s was that it was very much inward-looking and there was a very powerful community of disabled people who were very clear in their aims and making strong art for and by disabled people. Indeed we got the DDA (Disability Discrimination Act 1995). Not the DDA we wanted but we got the DDA. What happened then was that the very clear, concise stand against discrimination got diluted and the Social Model as a source of inspiration and power for people to find a voice kind of hit a brick wall because impairment within the Social Model wasn’t really addressed in a very strong way. So all the slogans like, Nothing About us Without us, the focus on things being disability-led, kind of fell apart when certain disabled leaders, say for example a wheelchair user, didn’t understand all the politics around Deaf issues or blind issues. Having disabled leaders is important but having that broad understanding of access and the issues faced by people with different impairments is more important.
GS: Isn’t it possible to have disabled leaders with a more complex understanding of disability, Deaf experiences, impairment?
CH: Yes that is the ideal, yes.
GS: Why hasn’t that developed or has it?
CH: There’s a choice that happens in either developing the politics or developing the arts. They can go hand in hand and work with each other and they can also work against each other. The emphasis from the funders has been that if you want the money you have got to develop the aesthetic, you’ve got to develop the art. The politics have been sacrificed to a large extent. A big part of that politics is the importance and value of work being disability-led, because at the end of the day, it’s the experience of being disabled by society that motivates us.
GS: With this huge austerity drive and all these cuts do you think there is more of a need now to develop disability political leadership and action?
CH: Yes there is more of a need now than ever. Absolutely.
GS: How do you see that developing given what you have just said?
CH: It needs people with courage to come forward and start demonstrating on the streets again.
GS: Do you see the march to Downing Street on Saturday protesting the changes being made to Access to Work as an example of this?
CH: I’m really angry that the government are cutting Access to Work. In this case the government said they will cap what any one BSL interpreter can earn at $40 000 a year. But who the hell in the arts is earning forty grand a year? Very few I would say. So the demonstrators were protesting the cuts in Access to Work with this cap on how much an individual can earn. There are thousands of disabled people dying because of cuts. The government is playing a game of divide and rule. On the one hand they are saying they want to get all disabled people into work, but on the other they’re denying means to make working an option. There needs to be a clearer focus in standing up to these issues.
GS: So are you saying that political leadership and analysis are lacking?
GS: When you say there is a need for people with courage to come forward, the courage to do what?
CH: What the hell do we do in this political climate? I got very involved in supporting the 10 000 Cuts and Counting protest. At the end of 2013 we were working with Michael Meacher MP and the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. We met Michael Meacher in his office in Downing Street. He had a mass of files of printouts, of emails and letters of people who had written to him of their plight, their family’s plight, what was happening as a result of austerity, what was happening as a result of cuts in disability benefits. The main focus was that over ten thousand people had died within six weeks of being declared fit for work because their benefits had been cut and they’d been left with no money. Those individuals didn’t necessarily pass away because of the cut in their benefits, but equally, many did. Can you imagine the indignity of being on your deathbed and getting an official letter from the Department of Work and Pensions telling you that you are fit for work? And this has happened to many thousands of individuals and their families. There has been a very dangerous shift in attitude that as an individual living in this society you have to prove that you are financially contributing to it for your existence to be valid. We’ve gone back to the Victorian age within a few short years with the ruling class and their bastard politics. They’ve got every evil connivance of screwing the tax payer and they’ve got the media sewn up so they can infest everyone’s brains that it’s disabled people who have brought austerity upon us, that have brought down the economy. It’s evil!
GS: So do you think it is the responsibility of disabled artists to identify as part of the community and bring the politics into their art in some way?
CH: I personally think it is but then who am I to demand that of an individual? I encourage individuals to get involved in Disability Arts Online who have that ethos. I would say though that generally this time around people are finding it much harder to stand up for their rights.
GS: Why do you think that is?
CH: Well I would include myself in this criticism and say after the DDA was established, the disability movement never really went out of its way to include younger people. So we’ve still got the same old codgers now trying to make a stand like they did twenty or thirty years ago. People are older and frailer.
GS: The older people may no longer have the physical strength but they have knowledge. Do you think younger people are separated from that history, that knowledge of what has gone before them? Are they expected to reinvent the wheel?
CH: Yes and the tendency of Neoliberalism is to encourage people into their own little camps, individualism, losing sight of the larger collective.
GS: Do we need to theorise how to change that and if so how?
CH: It has to happen. I think going back to what we were saying earlier there is a value and an importance in the work that has become the key focus for disability arts – the relaying of stories about the body, stories of people’s experiences of individual impairment, of discrimination.
GS: How does art play a role in changing public perceptions?
CH: Art has a key role to play. You might not call an ITV soap opera, art, but in terms of popular culture, it’s much more wide-reaching than most art. And so for example, Liam Bairstow who trained with Mind the Gap has recently got a lead role in ITV’s Coronation Street. I think that a young actor with learning difficulties being seen on TV is definitely going to change attitudes, make a lot of people think and those changes are really important.
GS: It seems you are saying that change needs to take place on many levels.
CH: That’s where disability arts is at now I think, certainly within the performing arts, and within the visual arts. In the visual arts there is possibly a bit more politics.
GS: Going back to individual courage – someone may have the courage needed to come forward but if others don’t join with that person it could be very demoralising. What is your experience in this regard?
CH: Well yes, for me, we went to all that effort with 10 000 Cuts and Counting and none of the media turned up and it was all forgotten very quickly. No one took any notice. Nobody seems to care that many thousands of disabled people died because of cuts. Nobody thinks that could be me, or that could be a member of my family.
GS: You said the media didn’t pick up on the story. Disability Arts Online plays an important role in providing an alternative media source.
CH: Yes we do provide an alternative media and we keep plugging away.
GS: You started Disability Arts Online in 2002, and in 2004 you set it up as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee. So it’s been running for over eleven years. How do you fund the organisation?
CH: We’re constantly working on funding applications for projects. We have a broad vision for how we operate in terms of raising debate about disability arts practice and supporting the work of individuals and organisations across art forms.
We’ve recently received funding from Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts scheme for Viewfinder over the next eighteen months. Viewfinder will see us working in partnership with Wikimedia UK, Sick! Festival, SPILL Festival, Carousel, the New Wolsey Theatre and Goldsmiths Disability Research Centre. It’s very exciting. Wikimedia UK are keen for us to populate Wikipedia with pages dedicated to disabled artists and a history of the movement. The Disability Research Centre at Goldsmiths University is supporting us in running a series of workshops.
We’re producing a video platform and commissioning disabled artists/filmmakers to curate a selection of disability work from the archives of Sick! Festival in Brighton, SPILL Festival in Ipswich/London and Carousel’s Oska Bright Festival. We will produce videos commenting on the importance of the selection in advancing the practice of disabled artists. So, for example Matthew Hellett, who is a learning disabled filmmaker on the Oska Bright committee will be making a film about what makes for good representation; how the committee judge the best films for Oska Bright. We’ve also got another year of core funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, which is renowned for funding organisations with a community remit.
GS: Have you come up with ideas for sustaining Disability Arts Online on a more long-term, financial basis? Have you tried financing the group by any means other than government funding or philanthropy?
CH: We’ve tried a few experiments. We recently worked with Stopgap Dance Company. They produced the Independent Fringe platform in Edinburgh. Disability Arts Online produced a crowd-funding platform for one of the younger artists, Rowan James. That was successful. We raised £1500 towards getting him to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We want to do more of that.
GS: You have described how outside funding can determine the path you take. So if you want to be independent of those demands and priorities in terms of changing the political situation how do you achieve financial independence and sustainability?
CH: Well yes sometimes you feel that the odds are stacked against you. It is a constant struggle. We need time and energy and imagination to come up with strategies. We have a shared knowledge and experience that can be incredibly useful to many industries, so we are also working to find ways to be more sustainable through consultancy and media partnerships.
GS: You have shared your childhood and some challenging personal experiences through your poetry in a way that must be quite confronting but hugely important in terms of supporting people within the Survivors Movement and people who may feel isolated. Would you like to comment on how art can provide a form of community solidarity and empowerment, especially in reference to your latest collection of poetry, Knitting Time?
CH: I’d like to think that Knitting Time had value in giving a voice to issues around mental distress. Mostly, psychiatry condemns individuals to the judgement of a medical imperative, which locates mental health problems in the head divorced from the individual’s life experience and circumstances or indeed from any emotional impact located in the body. It treats the individual as having a separate, disconnected body and mind and introduces powerful and potentially harmful drugs to suppress experience deemed as mental health problems. Often, those experiences can be exhilarating and creative even if they can make it harder to function in the ‘real world’. Often mental health ‘issues’ are a matter of an individual having the confidence to be comfortable with who they are.
So in sharing some of my own journey I would hope to break some of the isolation people feel. There is empowerment in hearing others’ stories, others’ expression. There are poets like John Clare and William Blake whose names come up frequently in terms of writers whose core work continues to inspire empowerment within a survivors’ community. There was a poem by Ellen Link that I go back to again and again that inspires my sense of the value of connection; and connection with nature as a healing force in contradistinction to this narrow framework we are meant to fit in with when it comes to being seen as valid, mentally healthy members of society: “In the woods they blast/ your courage to tell you/ you are not a tree, that the wild wind /and the grey skies are not your cousins/ though their atoms be like yours. . .”
For further reading:
Colin Hambrook was educated at Dartington College of Arts in South West England. Colin’s first collection of poetry, 100 Houses was published by DaDaSouth in 2011, followed by Knitting Time (Waterloo Press ISBN 978-1-906742-65-2). He is the founding editor of Disability Arts Online
The interview was conducted by Gaele Sobott on 28th September 2015 at the Barbican Centre in London just before Colin attended the Creative Future Literary Awards at the Free Word Centre in Holborn.